2

Are there any guidelines for the fluctuation between past and historical present tense in Latin narrative other than "it's used for vividness"? I'm writing my first multi-scene narrative and so I'm running into this question more than usual. Like, do I just switch into historical present when I would do so if I were telling the story informally in English?

I remember reading a review of a book that suggested that different verbs seemed to prefer past or historical present, but I can't remember the name of the book.

4

The only guidelines I've seen that are related to this issue in any way aren't really about the switch to historic present per se. (Every discussion I've ever seen is in agreement that the historic present is used to add 'vividness.') Instead, the guidelines are related to the appropriate use of the historic present and the historic infinitive; and both sets of guidelines are given quite separately in grammars, for good reason.

The historic present replaces the historic perfect (i.e., perfect as simple past) (Allen & Greenough §469). The historic infinitive replaces the imperfect (A&G §463), and so 'is never used to state a mere historical fact' but is descriptive (ibid., Note). So you're right, in a way: the verbs that you're using – or rather, the nature of the actions that you're using them to describe – might lead you to choose either present indicative or present infinitive for a given passage of text.

Nevertheless, the historic present and historic infinitive are two separate constructions that are held to have different purposes and different effects. You switch to historic present whenever you want the reader to feel that they're witnessing the events up close (A&G §469, Note; Gildersleeve & Lodge §229). By contrast, the historic infinitive is used, not for vividness, but 'to give a rapid sequence of events' (G&L §647); it 'gives the outline of the thought, and not the details' (ibid., Note 1). Woodcock (A new Latin syntax) §21 gives a nice summary:

The Historic Infinitive is used in excited narrative to describe an unfolding scene, a state of feeling, or the beginning or repetition of striking actions... [They] are seldom used singly. There are usually two or more... The historians in particular developed the construction as a stylistic device for painting a scene with a few rapid strokes...

Still, both constructions – one that adds vividness by describing the actions as occurring right now, and one that gives a mere sketch of an unfolding scene – can create a sense of excitement or acceleration during a narrative, especially at climactic or significant moments. In your own narrative, you might use one in one scene and the other in another, depending on the effect that you're trying to achieve.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.